When implementing SPIDER WEB discussion in your classroom, you may find a class or student who proves to be especially challenging. In her book The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER WEB Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins suggests assigning roles to individuals or groups of students to help overcome some of the challenges. Wiggins identifies the following helpful roles (pp. 106-107):
- Web grapher: The web grapher creates the graph of the conversation. It requires the student to be attentive to all speakers.
- Three-question asker: The three-question asker is allowed only questions during the discussion and cannot speak any other time.
- Key Passage Leader: The key passage leader identifies two to four pieces of text for discussion and analysis. It may be useful to assign this role ahead of the discussion
- Textual Evidence Leader: The textual evidence leader monitors discussion and keeps the group focused on the text.
- Rubric Leader: The rubric leader helps everyone be aware of the rubric items throughout the discussion and guides toward completion of all rubric tasks. This individual is only allowed to speak once or twice during the middle or end of the discussion to keep people focused on the goals.
- Host: The host invites student into the discussion. The host is aware of who has not spoken and encourages them to speak through the use of engaging questions.
- Vocabulary/Literary Terms Leader: The vocabulary/literary terms leader is to have a hard copy of the literary terms and make sure that at least one new term is used during the discussion. The new term may be introduced by the vocabulary/literary terms leader or another participant.
- Feedback giver: The feedback giver is the only silent participant during the discussion. The feedback giver only speaks during debriefing.
These roles are suggested by Wiggins. As you employ SPIDER WEB discussion in your classroom, you may find some of these roles are unnecessary and others may need to be created. The more you tailor the methodology to your classroom, the more engaging it will become for you and your students!
While many students will find a SPIDER WEB discussion to be an enjoyable break from the traditional classroom structure, some students may have trouble navigating the new paradigm. In her book The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER WEB Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins identifies two types of students who may have difficulty adjusting to the new classroom dynamic: students how are shy and students who are superstars. Shy students, while they may have great insight to share, are often more comfortable with their thoughts and will avoid participating in discussion. Superstars often have the urge to share every thought and do their best to dominate discussion. So how do classroom teachers help students who are shy and students who are superstars become part of the larger, collaborative discussion? Wiggins suggests the following (pp. 70-91):
- Openly address the issue of the difficulties faced by both the shy and superstar students. Keep reminding everyone of the goal: to have a deep, interesting discussion as a team.
- Give all students a few minutes to quietly reflect on the topic and write things down prior to discussion. This will help all students, whether shy or superstar, focus their thinking and provide them with some discussion points.
- Provide quality feedback based upon the rubric. The rubric is there to help students learn what is important in a collaborative team. Let all students know how they are doing and provide ways to improve.
- Keep trying. Patience, persistence, and self-assessment will help develop student skills and yield a balanced discussion.
As you implement SPIDER WEB discussion in your classroom, be aware of those students who might find the non-traditional structure to be uncomfortable and provide supports necessary to improve participation. Your students will appreciate your efforts, and you will all learn much about one another in the process!
Now that you have developed a rubric related to the skills you want to address during discussion and have selected a topic or text for discussion, it is time to introduce SPIDER WEB discussion in your classroom. In her book The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER WEB Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins provides considerable detail regarding the process (pp. 25-30):
- Introduce the concept to your class. You may wish to show a video of the process. Wiggins shares the following link to one of her 9th grade classes in action: https://youtu.be/jHi06vm5uJk
- Briefly discuss what you see in the video.
- Hand out the rubric and note that this will result in a group grade. Please note that the group grade will not be counted. The goal is to get everyone to work as a team. They need to assess themselves at the end of the session.
- Arrange the room in a circle or oval, so that all students can see one another. The teacher should be positioned away from the circle, but able to see all participants. The teacher will be monitoring the discussion and documenting the process.
- Set a time limit for discussion. The amount of time will vary depending upon the grade level of the students. Ten minutes may be appropriate for elementary students; twenty to thirty minutes may be appropriate for middle school students; and, thirty minutes or greater may be appropriate for high school students.
- Have students put away electronic devices. Laptops and smart phones are great tools for learning, but they often distract from meaningful, community-building discussions.
- Have the students start the discussion.
- The teacher then becomes an observer. The teacher does not intervene in discussion unless there is something harmful or overly upsetting developing. The teacher charts the discussion using a web format. All student names/locations are charted on a piece of paper. A line is drawn from student to student as the discussion is passed around. The teacher codes activities by student names (i.e. a student interrupts, so the teacher puts an I next to the name). Codes are generated by the teacher throughout the observation.
- When the discussion time has ended, the teacher joins the circle for debriefing. The teacher displays the web and allows the students to respond to what they see.
- Using the rubric, the students provide an assessment of their work as a group. They discuss the grade and what can be done differently the next time discussion is held.
While this is a simplistic overview of a very complex classroom activity, it is clear that such a format for student-led discussion can produce powerful learning. I encourage you to view the video of students in action and begin thinking about how you might bring such discussion activities into your classroom. You will find the students learn much and enjoy the process!
When first introducing SPIDER WEB discussions into your classroom, it is best to choose a topic that will get students talking. In her book The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER WEB Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins suggests beginning with a stand-alone discussion (discussion can be weaved into units after students have their first experience) and provides the following suggestions related to choosing a topic (pp. 22-24):
- Think student-friendly. Using a topic that is overly academic or content related may be off-putting to students and may damage the ability to use dialogue in the classroom in the future.
- Think multimedia. There are many great multimedia pieces available for viewing or listening that can spark student dialogue. Whether it’s a short film, music video, or spoken word recording, these multimedia presentations can provide tremendous fodder for student engagement.
- Think about questions. A single well-crafted question can get students going.
The possibilities for dialogue starters in the classroom are endless, and the learning from classroom dialogue is powerful and authentic. Be creative as you consider possible topics for your first SPIDER WEB discussion. You will find that you and your students learn much and enjoy the process!
If students are to improve their communication and collaboration skills, they will require feedback related to current levels of performance. In her book The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER WEB Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins promotes the use of a rubric for assessing SPIDER WEB discussions. According to Wiggins (pp. 17-22), the rubric should:
- Clearly identify the goals for the discussion.
- Clearly identify the skills to be increased.
- Clearly define the outcomes to achieved.
- Be used by students to reflect and self-assess.
While I concur with Wiggins’ recommendations regarding the rubric, I would also add one more recommendation:
- The rubric should be student generated if at all possible.
Students of all ages are capable of understanding and articulating what they should know and how they will demonstrate their new knowledge. Several years ago I taught a 4th grade music composition class, and I asked the group to develop the rubric used to assess the music generated. Our dialogue about what makes a good composition (harmony, melody, form, contrast, rhythm, etc.) demonstrated that they had a significant understanding of the content, and I found that the students were far more demanding than I would have been regarding their compositions. I was quite shocked and impressed at the same time. In the end, they produced some rather high quality compositions, they could explain them in appropriate terms, and they were fully engaged in the assessment process.
As you begin to develop plans for your SPIDER WEB discussions, think of ways to engage students in the development of the rubric to be used for assessment purposes. I believe you and your students will learn much and enjoy the journey!
Communication and collaboration are essential skills for the success of our students. As such, students need opportunities to practice and develop these skills in the safe spaces of our classrooms. In her book The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER WEB Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins introduces the SPIDER WEB classroom philosophy. According to Wiggins (p.9), SPIDER WEB discussion is:
- Synergetic – Team oriented – The whole class is engaged.
- Practiced – Ongoing process.
- Independent – Students lead the discussion.
- Developed – Discussion builds on itself.
- Exploratory – It is focused.
- Rubric-assessed – Students have clear and concise guidelines.
The WEB is a student- or teacher-generate visual representation of the dialogue.
As you prepare for your classes next week, think of ways that you can begin to implement some of the SPIDER elements. Your students will learn much in the process!
Let’s start the today with a quiz:
- Name the five wealthiest people in the world.
- Name the last three Heisman trophy winners.
- Name the last three winners of the Miss America pageant.
- Name five people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize.
- Name the last five Academy Award winners for best actor and actress.
- Name the last four World Series winners.
How did you do? My guess is that you had trouble answering these questions. That’s okay. People generally don’t remember the headliners of yesterday, even though these are not second-rate achievers. Awards tarnish, achievements are forgotten, and accolades are buried with their owners.
Here’s another quiz:
- List a few teachers who aided your journey through school.
- Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time.
- Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile.
- Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special.
- Think of five people you enjoy spending time with.
Did you find this to be easier? Probably so. The people who make a difference in your life are not those with the most credentials, the most money, or the most awards. They simply are the ones who care the most and translate their caring into action. I encourage you to be that person – the one who cares the most – for each student in your classroom. In doing so, you’ll be helping someone and creating a special bond that will be enduring.